Current lunar phase: Waning Crescent

JULY

2009


Ladies first

“I need you to find a man.”

In my profession, I hear that punch twice a week. There were plenty of men in this city, and some pretty lady was always looking for one of them: the bruiser, boyfriend, father, uncle, husband, brother, cousin, son, son-in-law, bookie, crook, crooked bookie, the ball player....

“It’s my boyfriend.” I’m shocked, and act it with a slight nod to the empty chair across my desk. She lithely helped herself. “He’s tall and handsome, with brown hair.”

“I’m sorry ma’am, but just about every lady thinks her boyfriend’s good looking, and there’s plenty of brunos in this town. How tall are we talking? And that brown hair of his, is it straight or wavy?”

She opened up her handbag—a tight little alligator number, with a bauble the size of a child’s fist—onto her lap, reached in, and passed me an envelope. Inside was a snapshot of the two of them. Based on the two-inch likeness, he didn’t seem all that dreamy to me, but I never did bat that way. Set against an inch-and-three-quarters girlfriend—in real life, a leggy five foot eight—he seemed to be about six foot two, close-cropped light brown hair and a solid jaw. Neither the photo’s black and white composition, nor the commemorated day’s bright sun, which made both models squint, offered much help with eye color, but to be honest, we dicks rarely go off the iris tip unless someone’s blinking purple. I held the dog-eared snap close and gave the man a good once over. From the looks of it, he’d broken his nose somewhere down the line and it’d healed itself heading left.

“When was the last time you saw him?”

“It’s been three weeks.”

“Three weeks?” I raised my brow and my eyes followed, to land on the lady across the table. I finally gave her a good look over. She’d been a brunette, but her hair was more red these days. She had the milky skin and small bones of a classic little lady, but between the two layers were a pile of curves that must’ve made men turn. She wore a tweed coat that looked like it had been worn in by someone a couple sizes bigger than her, but between its open lapels, I could see her blouse, which fit like a glove. It was a button up silk number, with a keyhole sinking fast from the throat.

She cleared her throat and I snapped to attention. “He came up here for business the third of February, said he’d be a week, and never came back. I know, I know, plenty of fellas would feed their girls a story like that and fly the coop, but he’s different.” She paused to collect herself, and I noticed her eyes were starting to swim. “We were going to be married.”

“Of course.” If I had a dime for every time I heard a line like that, I’d be drinking mid-morning cocktails with JP Morgan, not sitting in a drafty office on the Lower East Side, listening to the same sad story all over again. Tall or short, white or black, men were not so different, at least when it came to excuses. Sounded like your standard dump and run, a regular case of cold feet, but this Joe wasn’t any friend of mine. I was happy to try and blow his cover, for my standard fee, plus expenses.

I passed back the envelope. “Coming up from where, if you don’t mind my asking?” Nerves might have made her talk a little faster, and self-consciousness might have clipped the tails of certain words, but I had a pretty good idea of her hometown. There was no covering up of the particular lope of her Louisiana tongue.

“Nauwleans.”

“And what kind of business?”

“Oh, what Leonard did? He didn’t talk about it much,” she started. That was all I needed to know that he was a mobster. “The import business, mostly.” That meant he was a runner, maybe of rum, maybe of dope, maybe of women. New Orleans’ port was like the rest of that fair city, just about anything was permissible, and just about everything passed through. Through the dry years we’ve been having, most of the booze on the south eastern seaboard docked there, then went overland east and north until it reached the speakeasies of New Amsterdam. Since prohibition started, the booze routes had been set, running up from the Big Easy and down from Canada. Simple enough, but where they mixed was sometimes trouble. Now that the feds were about to be singing a new, hiccuping tune, I’d noticed a lot of these runners were getting nervous about the last pieces of the pie and grasping onto their booze-soaked straws. More than a few were throwing some punches for the last bits of the lucrative liquid trade. I had a feeling this woman’s intuition might be right, and I may have stepped into something stickier than cold feet.

“All I know is that he had a big shipment going up to New York, and he wanted to see it here personally. But he should have been back ten days ago.”

That confirmed the two-bit part. The real bosses never came within fifty miles of the goods, unless they really wanted to. They generally preferred to keep their hands clean, and sent in guys like this boyfriend of ours for the dirty work. Her boy was no big-shot and she knew it. If he was, she would have had a real winter coat, not some hand-me-down from a thick broad.

“So you came up here, looking for him.”

She bit her lip and looked glassy-eyed to her knees. It looked like I’d have waterworks at any minute. I shifted in my seat and hoped she wouldn’t.

“We were supposed to get married.” Her voice dropped to something short of a whisper. “Last weekend.”

“I see. And what is your line of work, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“I am—well, I was going to retire when we wed—I was in the entertainment industry.” In New Orleans, that was a whole other kind of euphemism, but I let that sleeping dog stay in its tawdry corner.

“All right.” I jotted down the requisite notes. “And how can I reach you when I find something?”

“I am staying with my sister in Brooklyn. It’s best if I call you.”

“Fine by me.” I passed her a card. As she slipped it into her bag, I couldn’t help but notice that she was packing a little midnight dynamite.

She paid me a week’s expenses and deposit from a stack of bills in the crocodile, then let herself out. Lunch today was going to be a good one.

Go have a real lunch at the Diner.

Take a “lunch” at the Bar.

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